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Word Play

Artist Wally Hedrick stretches his canvases

By Gretchen Giles

FLAPPING IN A GENTLE sea-forced wind behind the old creamery building in Bodega is one simple sign declaring the premises to be "Wally's Fix-It Shop." And while painter Wally Hedrick did spend a decade in the west Marin town of San Geronimo puttering over other people's crummy toasters and Mixmasters-gone-wrong, this advertisement has also graced the entrance to gallery exhibition spaces, while some of his work continues to travel under the auspices of New York's Whitney Museum.

Entitled "Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965," this overview of the California-based movement--due Oct. 5 at the M. H. de Young Museum in San Francisco--is not the only chance one has to see Hedrick's witty catalog images, searing painterly objections to war, and paeans to sexuality.

Through Aug. 17, you can also catch a small slice of Hedrick's long career, "Madonnas, Gods, and Goddesses," at the King-Heller Gallery in sleepy ol' Bodega.

Born in Pasadena some 67 years ago, Hedrick is as much a product of the Golden State as our ideas of the black-turtleneck-and-beret world of the beats are a product of him. Co-founder of the 6 Gallery that hosted poet Allen Ginsberg's first public reading of "Howl," Hedrick was married to abstract painter Jay De Feo--whose "Rose" painting was so imbued with acrylics that it weighed more than a ton, necessitating that an apartment wall be knocked out to move the piece when she and Hedrick changed homes--and was an unwilling conscript of the Korean War (legend has it that the army had to dispatch soldiers to literally hunt Hedrick down on enlistment day).

Returning from his tour, he enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts (now the Art Institute of San Francisco, where Hedrick also taught for 10 years), meeting such restless youth as Bruce Conner, George Herms, Wallace Berman, and Jess [Collins], who strove to create art in the cheap-wine/cool-jazz giddiness of postwar West coast culture.

Driven by the economics of poverty, Hedrick collected junk and refashioned it--now a familiar idea, but one that was then unusually juxtaposed against the mass-market tract-housing trends of the Eisenhower years--rendering such recycled beautites as a Christmas tree of castoffs. Participating in the dump-aesthetic that formed the nucleus of the California Funk movement, Hedrick became a skilled painter, using his canvases to parse out his puns and concepts.

"Everyone who's going to paint has to go through all of those things so that they understand them," he says. "I've painted abstractly, I've painted objectively, I've painted watercolors, and oils--that was to get skills, like practicising scales. But then I finally realized that the idea was more important than the other aspects, that I could get an idea and realize it.

"The execution used to be a great pleasure, but now it's getting tedious," he says, gesturing to the exacting, pointillistic style he uses to render the catalog-style blow-ups that he's been creating the early 1970s.

"It's not that it's a drag to have to paint," he asserts quickly, "but that's moderated by stumbling on things that I can add to what I'm working to. Those little moments still happen. But the execution, especially because the way I'm working now is very slow and very precise."

Why not hire an art student to apply the paint?

"I've tried that," Hedrick chuckles. "I'm too dictatorial."

Riffing off puns and word-fueled images, Hedrick has even gone so far as to evolve two alter egos, one female--Jenny Saypaugh (say it slow with a French accent)--and her male counterpart, Harry Fallick, whose name was borne by a real-life B-flick Hollywood producer. Saypaugh has entered and been accepted to all-female exhibitions, and her self-portrait occupies one full wall at the King-Heller.

"I just do what I do," Hedrick shrugs, "and later it takes some auditor to see what's there. I don't consciously make female-oriented paintings, and I don't set out to make political paintings--well, sometimes I do, and sometimes there are sexual connotations--but I didn't paint it for that reason. The work flows out of that room," he says, gesturing to his studio, "and later I guess it can be broken down."

Hedrick has long been as attracted by the visual formation of words on a page or hand-lettered sign as by the meaning they convey. "I see the words as patterns," he says. "The meaning is almost secondary to the formal aspects that have to do with the work."

Informed by the Dadaistic philosophy that led French artist Marcel Duchamp to submit an unaltered "readymade" urinal wryly entitled "The Fountain" to a 1917 exhibit, Hedrick primarily uses images to transmit ideas.

"Nowadays, we call it conceptual thinking," he says, sounding every inch the art professor he once was. "I try to combine that with what I call subjective reality, and that means making things real the way that I think that they are, even though it may not be visually accepted by you, in the sense that you have a preconceived idea of how things are. Well, so do I. So I try to limit myself to my own visual reality, and," he laughs, "forget about trying to convince someone else.

"For me it's important that the techniques that I have--and the longer you do it, the better you get--are used to approach how I visualize the idea, instead of how it looks. Sometimes it looks photographic, and if that's important, well, I've got all kinds of techniques to do that."

Speaking of the slice of work showcased in Bodega, he says. "I show. But there's no great hurry. I mean, I'm not worried about making my place in the art world at 67. Either I have, or I'm not going to.

"The hell with it."

"Madonnas, Gods, and Goddesses" runs through Aug. 17. King-Heller Gallery, Salmon Creek Road at Bodega Hwy., Bodega. Hours: Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 876-3305.

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From the July 25-31, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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